No Scientist Should Face Harassment. Period.

February 20, 2015
Gretchen Goldman
Research Director, Center for Science & Democracy

Last week, UCS released a report detailing the cases of many scientists who have been the targets of open record requests filed by their critics. These attacks have come from the left (e.g., gay marriage) and from the right (e.g., climate change). That same week, Science reported that an advocacy group had submitted extensive open records requests to multiple universities for significant portions of the email correspondence of several scientists who work in genetic engineering. On whether this constitutes harassment, it’s worth revisiting what should be disclosed and what should not.

As detailed in our new report, Freedom to Bully, scientific experts in a range of fields have faced attacks from critics through open records laws. Photo: iStockphoto/studioportosabbia

As detailed in our new report, Freedom to Bully, scientific experts in a range of fields have faced attacks from critics through open records laws. Photo: iStockphoto/studioportosabbia

The advocacy group says it is looking to uncover the nature of relationships between the scientists and agribusiness companies, trade groups and PR firms. To be clear, disclosure of funding sources and other conflicts of interest is important. We’ve said it before on this blog and I’m sure we will say it again: any real or perceived conflicts of interest for scientists should be publicly disclosed. And as history has shown, scientists are not always proactive on this. Many cases have surfaced where undisclosed financial ties were found by those who took the time to scrutinize (e.g. here, here, and here).  Such investigations are important and necessary.

But the push and pull of the scientific process and research deliberations should be exempt from disclosure. Science is an iterative process and researchers should be free to discuss, challenge, and develop ideas with a certain level of privacy. As a result, these requests to the genetic engineering researchers, just like other overly broad open records requests that seek excessive access to scientists’ inboxes, are inappropriate.

Investigations should be targeted. Overly broad open records requests can intimidate scientists and take significant time away from their research. We know such politically or ideologically motivated attacks can have chilling effects on researchers and confuse the public about the state of the science. No scientist or engineer should have to face that kind of excessive scrutiny, no matter what their area of study.

Earlier this month, I wrote about an engineer named Charles Marohn, who had his credentials questioned by those who didn’t agree with his professional opinion.  With this in mind, we should remember that the harassment of scientists through open records requests is just one method of many that an expert’s antagonists use to discredit him or her. All of these actions make it more difficult for scientists to make new discoveries and come up with new ideas. We should be able to have critical discussions about science without attacking the individuals that create it.